What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

Remember: all pictures can be expanded to full page size by clicking on them.


14 May 2013

Sex and the single grammarian

What is more important: correct grammar
or brightly painted toenails?
The BBC website today carries a story about a new emphasis on grammar which is to be introduced into schools in England in a revised curriculum. In today’s semi-incoherent world—in which a teetotal President of the United States used to talk sometimes as if he were drunk—this seems to me a good thing. Apart from anything else, it might help to encourage clear thinking.
     But how far should one take grammatical correctness? There is nothing so silly as people who mangle sentences in order, for example, to avoid splitting infinitives. So what, dear readers, do you make of this quotation from the BBC article?
Twist Phelan, an American writer who went on 100 online dates in 100 days and later married someone she met online, says grammar is a vital "filter system". It shows care has been taken when sentences are grammatically correct. "If you're trying to date a woman, I don't expect flowery Jane Austen prose. But aren't you trying to put your best foot forward?"
     But there is a grammatical mistake in Ms Phelan's quotation. It is a basic rule of English that the degrees of comparison: positive, comparative and superlative (for: one thing, two things and more than two), are expressed as “good”, “better” and “best”. Of two objects, one is “better” than the other, not “best”. You can only have the “best” of three or more things.
     So when Ms Phelan wants a man who puts his “best foot forward”, we have to assume that she is looking for one with three (or more) feet. In homo sapiens sapiens this constitutes a deformity.
     Could that be why Ms Phelan felt she needed to go online to find a date, where the choice is so much wider? In libraries, dramming competitions, tennis matches or even in the offices of oligarchs you rarely meet people with three feet. You sometime meet ones with two left feet (as the saying goes). But those people generally do not have a right foot as well.
     So, to be grammatical herself, Ms Phelan really ought to have said that she wants a man who put his “better” foot forward. But of course, the old saying is: to put your “best” foot forward, as in the picture above. So what do we do when custom offends the rules of grammar? I know what I think. What do you think?


  1. Ahhh, dear Professor Higgins you are just being pedantic! :)
    Let all us feel happy for Ms Phelan who finally stopped being a spinster!
    Isn't this phrase used as a metaphor? When we Russians say 'Don't you pull the cat's balls!' that's obvious we don't mean pulling real cats' balls, do we?

  2. It suddenly came to my mind that you're actually confusing your dear readers with this post, Ian.
    By mentioning 'best foot' Ms. Finally-Not-A-Spinster-Anymore refers to one's ability to write in good English rather than their body parts.
    If we start being that pedantic about idioms, metaphors or proverbs, what are we going to do with the rest lot? Blimey!
    If somebody mentions 'raining cats and dogs' shall we kindly point out to them that no cute puppies are coming down from the skies but just water? :)